The Brits were onto something in wartime Malaysian jungles in 1942 – sonic warfare. Imagine the franchise possibilities for comic-book or spy villains (The Brides of Fu Manchu, 1966, or Some Girls Do, 1969, anyone?). Fortunately, this ignores such temptations and takes a long hard raw look at the reality of conflict, courage and cowardice, the desire and reality of killing.
Beginning as a fairly stock examination of men in combat, the usual clash of personalities, bullying loudmouths, and it being British elements of class distinction. But it quickly moves on to something much deeper, initially tough guys worrying about what their wives are getting up in their absence back home, but on capturing a Japanese soldier what exactly to do with him once his usefulness is over. Treat him according to the Geneva Convention as a prisoner-of-war and escort him back to base or just get rid of him and save yourself the trouble.
Five main characters make up this squad. Sgt Mitchem (Richard Todd) is the ruthless leader under pressure. He was busted down to corporal for losing a previous patrol, has got his stripe back and wants to prove his worth. But he appears to be from a different generation to his troops, his stiff upper lip only too evident while the others just give lip.
Corporal Johnstone (Richard Harris) likes to remind him of his previous misdemeanor and question his judgement. Racist Private Bamforth (Laurence Harvey) riles everyone, especially picking on Lance Corporal Macleish (Ronald Fraser) who is as likely to reply with his fists. Radio operator Private Whitaker (David McCallum) is over-keen on the spoils of war, kitbag stuffed with enemy mementoes.
After apprehending Jap soldier Tojo (Kenji Takaki) Johnstone is inclined to bayonet him right away (a bullet would attract attention). Others, more squeamish than principled, balk at the deed. At first Bamforth makes fun of the captive, belittling him, but then views him as a human being caught up in a war not of his making, giving him cigarettes, trying to make him more comfortable. When Macleish starts slapping the prisoner around, Bamforth defends him, though it’s obvious Mitchem and Johnstone have no intention of taking him back.
Then the tide turns. They are surrounded by Japs and it’s battle for real with an enemy who can defend itself. Action determines character. Some are revealed as complete cowards, others will abandon colleagues to save their skin, others are instinctively courageous, others yet again with a bit more cunning.
But the firefight when it comes is nothing like any other battle you have seen where Allied forces invariably triumph. There’s none of the clever ruses more typical of the genre.
This is by far the rawest depiction of British soldiers on the battle. The characters and conversation hit home. Tough guys are nothing but vulnerable. Although it appears that way, none of the characters actually change, it’s more that their real personalities emerge.
This is Laurence Harvey’s (The Running Man, 1963) best performance. In other pictures, his clipped delivery hid an edge of malevolence, and especially to retain audience sympathy he restrained an inner nastiness, even when ruthless as in Room at the Top (1958), this aspect more important if the male lead in a romance or essaying a decent character. Here, the real Harvey is let loose in the sense that his delivery is more normal, as if he delights in taking pleasure in using language to gut his victims. Sure, it’s an ideal central role, the guy who starts off one way and ends another, but he really brings it to life.
Richard Harris (This Sporting Life, 1963) was a rising star at this point. And it shows. He’s always trying to steal scenes, an unnecessary gesture, a roll of the eyes, forceful delivery. He turns out to be nastier than everyone else. Richard Todd (Subterfuge, 1968) also plays against type, no longer the heroic figure of The Dam Busters (1955) but fighting not just the enemy and his fellow soldiers but his internal demons.
Ronald Fraser (Fathom, 1967), often condemned to humorous supporting parts, also has a meatier role as does David McCallum (The Spy in the Green Hat, 1967).
Apart from a heavy dose of rain and some stock shots of animals, it betrays its stage roots, based on a play by Willis Hall, but that hardly matters when the dialog is so sharp, the characters so well-drawn and the drama so intense.
Leslie Norman (Dunkirk, 1958) does an excellent job of focusing on character and making the action believable. Wolf Mankowitz (The Day the Earth Caught Fire, 1961) was credited with the screenplay.
2 thoughts on “The Long and the Short and the Tall / Jungle Fighters (1961) ****”
Not seen this for years, but tend to file it alongside Ice Cold in Alex in terms of gritty depictions of war…
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Ice Cold is a cut above. These British war movies tended to be grittier than people think.
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